We need to plant new churches and new campus ministries throughout North America. That I am 100% convinced of but I also know we need missionary planters that can navigate the tension that comes with embodying the gospel. Such tension is a question of how we live in a manner that is both faithful to Jesus and contextual to the local cultures.
Years ago I was serving with a church in New Jersey and one of the members of that church gave me a book to read, one which I enjoyed much and have since referred back to on occasions. The book I was given is called The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, (2014, 2004) by Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen. The book, as the title suggests, demonstrates how the Bible tells a coherent story by taking the reader through the story, or drama, of scripture.
Of course, I firmly believe that a narrative reading of scripture matters if we are to faithfully live as participants in the mission of God. Bartholomew and Goheen explain why this narrative reading of scripture matters:
Many of us have read the Bible as if it were merely a mosaic of little bits—theological bits, moral bits, historical-critical bits, sermon bits, devotional bits. But when we read the Bible in such a fragmented way, we ignore its divine author’s intention to shape our lives through its story. …If we allow the Bible to become fragmented, it is in danger of being absorbed into whatever other story is shaping our culture, and it will thus cease to shape our lives as it should (The Drama of Scripture, p. 12).
That’s the rub and the reason a narrative reading of scripture matters. The reality is that everyone is living a particular story. However, when we follow and are baptized into Jesus Christ, God is raising us into a new life that is the good news of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. That’s our new story as disciples of Christ, which is told to us through the narrative of scripture. But if we allow the Bible to be absorbed into a different story, then we will struggle to embody the good news of Jesus Christ and our witness as participants in the mission of God will be compromised.
Of course, I’ve also just named one of the fundamental credibility problems that Christianity has in North America. There are far too many people who profess the Christian faith but continue living out of an alternative story that is not the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. The stories they live are formed by realities such as national or geographical locations. For example, I once had a Christian justify his subtle racism expressed in his condemnation of inter-racial marriages by saying, “I was born and raised in the south and that’s just the way things are around here.” But to be a Christian is about our location in Christ rather than the location of our childhood. Our baptism into Christ says that our old life has been buried with Christ and we have been raised to walk in a new life in Christ (Rom 6:3-4). So our point of departure for how we live can no longer be where we were raised and whatever was the accepted social-cultural norms of that location.
What makes any life-orienting story a story is the worldview it projects. Worldview stories offer a particular vision and set of values that direct what goal or end (telos) people should live for and how they should live in order to reach the goal. With this in mind, we can see how political ideologies, on both the right and left, offer a rival story to the gospel. Sadly though, too many Christians these days seem to be allowing the gospel story told within scripture to be absorbed into various political ideologies. One only needs to spend a few minutes scrolling through their social media feed to see examples.
Living our of the gospel story as told within the narrative of scripture raises a question. How do we navigate the tension of embodying the gospel in a manner that is coherent with the gospel but relevant to our cultural location in society? In others, how do live as followers of Jesus in a manner that is both faithful to Jesus but contextual to our locations?
Undoubtedly, this is a big question that cannot be fully answered with just one post. However, I recently read another book by Goheen and Bartholomew called Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Wolrdview (2008) which is very helpful in addressing the tension of embodying the gospel in our society. Several options that Goheen and Bartholomew reject include simply withdrawing from society, uncritically accommodating society, or living with a dualistic stance where we attempt to live a Christian view privately but publically fit in with the rest of society.
Rather than withdrawal, accommodation, and dualism, the authors call for discernment that considers both the gospel and the culture of society. It is an exercise in critical thinking in which “we discern between the creational structure and design in all things and the religious misdirection and rebellion that pervert God’s good world” (Living at the Crossroads, p. 136). In other words, within every culture, there are likely aspects of life that reflect God’s creative and redemptive intent but also aspects that are departures from this intent. So for example, we can think of sex and sexual intimacy. God obviously created sex and sexual intimacy as a natural expression but we also know that sex and sexual intimacy have often departed from God’s intent in a fallen world corrupted by sin. This is one reason why when someone says, “It’s only natural,” we must critically evaluate whether the claim of being natural flows from God’s creative-redemptive intent or from a fallen-corrupted understanding.
I have mentioned and interacted with both books Bartholomew and Goheen because I find them helpful for us to think about the missional task we face as followers of Jesus living in North America in 2022 and beyond. If you’ve read the books, then great. If you haven’t, I would encourage you to add them to your list of books to read in the not-to-distant future.
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.